Audubon was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a sea captain and his mistress, and raised in France by his stepmother. His early education included lessons from Jacques Louis David, later famous as a painter in revolutionary France.
He tied yarn to the legs of Eastern Phoebes and determined that they returned to the same nesting spots year after year. He also began drawing and painting birds. After years of business success in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, he went bankrupt. This impelled him to pursue his nature study and painting more vigorously and he sailed off down the Mississippi with his gun and paintbox and assistant, intent on finding and painting all the birds of North America.
Finally, in 1826 he took his portfolio to London, where he was lionized as "The American Woodsman" and raised enough money to publish his Birds of America. He followed this up with a companion work, Ornithological Biographies, life histories of each species written with Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. Both the books of paintings and the biographies were published between 1827 and 1839.
During that time, Audubon continued making expeditions in North America and bought an estate on the Hudson river, now Audubon Park. In 1842 he published a popular edition of Birds of America in the United States. His final work was on mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. It was completed by his sons and son-in-law. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.
The Audubon Society was established and named in his honor in 1866.